Gross Generalizations

I spent the better part of yesterday morning trying — fruitlessly — to make a minor change to my cellphone plan. My carrier of choice offered two ways of doing it, in theory: I could make the change in my account online, or call their handy 1800 number. Online quickly ran into a dead-end, since the plans that were advertised on the main Choose a Plan page bore absolutely no relation to the plans I was given the option of switching to. So I called the 1800 number, and got bounced around through voice mail hell until an agent finally answered, only to tell me that I had reached residential service, not wireless. So he transferred me, and after 10 minutes more on hold I was disconnected. This happened three more times until I finally gave up, but only after swearing profusely at a miserable and innocent young man named Brett. (Sorry Brett!). 

So what’s the point? Well, the whole episode reminded me of Robert Conquest’s Third Law of Politics: “The simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.”

Which in turn reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write something about these kind of laws. I love them, and Conquest’s are three of the best. His other two:

  1. Everyone is a reactionary about what he knows best.
  2. Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left wing.

Conquest’s laws are clearly those formulated by a historian: they speak to a breadth and depth of reading and experience that allows him to say, basically, this is how the world works. 

A similar, more resigned instance is Sturgeon’s Adage: “Ninety percent of everything is crap.”

I’ve wanted to come up with a theorem or law or lemma of my own, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t the sort of thing you can conjure up deliberately.  The closest I came, maybe, was a line in my thesis that said “philosophy abhors a consensus”, which is little more than a mild witticism. The Rebel Sell contains a number of handy memes (“the Pink Floyd theory of education”) and rules of thumb (“What if everyone did that?”)  but there aren’t any statements that would qualify as a a social or political law on a par with Conquest. 

Our own Paul Wells, of course, has earned widespread fame for his Two Rules of Canadian politics:

Rule 1: For any given situation, Canadian politics will tend toward the least exciting possible outcome.

Rule 2: If everyone in Ottawa knows something, it’s not true.

They are both good, though I think the first one is close to genius (see: The Madness).  I asked around, and Andrew Coyne chipped in with these:

1. The closer the government , the less accountable it is. 

2. Public support for any monopoly is the square of its decrepitude.   

3. Any law passed by a unanimous vote of Parliament is always a bad idea.

4. The bigger the issue, the less likely it is to decide an election.

I’m sure there are plenty more out there. Which ones do you like? Do you have any of your own?